Big Society, Little Hope: False Folk Culture In 2011

From the broom-wielding legions of Clapham to Alex James' cheese and Mumford & Sons, Joe Kennedy examines the current vogue for nu-folk whimsy and its links to Big Society rhetoric

Picking a single, defining image of this summer’s riots would be tricky. Since mid-August, the gallery of Middle English paranoia has had a new permanent exhibition, and its hangings would unquestionably include photographs of looters spilling out of New Look or Carphone Warehouse, of the burning Sony warehouse just off the M25, and of police baton charges in the backstreets of South London and Manchester. Thanks to smartphones, rolling news, and CCTV, there was no shortage of delinquency-porn to aggravate the disgust of Tunbridge Wells.

However, the pictures which best captured the wider cultural implications of the disorder were arguably those which depicted hundreds of plaid-shirted, overwhelmingly white young people taking to the streets of Clapham to clean up. The ‘broom army’, visited by Boris Johnson and endorsed by a multitude of moralising Facebook campaigns, was manna to a media seeking, as ever in such situations, a tale of middle-class public-spiritedness which could truly show up the avarice of the lumpenproletariat for what it was. Predictably, the Blitz was invoked as the response of ‘real Londoners’ was lauded as a piece of marvellous civic improvisation.

Putting aside the ontological head-scratcher of what epithet the rioters deserve if the broom-wielders were ‘real’ Londoners (were they ‘pretend’? ‘imaginary’?), the most debatable implication doing the rounds was that the clean-up was a spontaneous, quasi-Situationist gesture of protest against acts which possessed no political legitimacy. A BBC web headline asked ‘Are brooms the symbol of the resistance?’, as if speaking of an English Gotham rotted by a conspiracy between gangs and their ‘cultural Marxist’ apologists. There was little debate about whether the riots themselves had at their core some hazy sense of resistance. Their alleged lack of a political basis was a rhetorical cornerstone for the likes of Theresa May and David Starkey, who both insisted that it was, at best, mealy-mouthed to suggest that institutionalised racism in the police, the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance, or vandalistic cuts to youth services might have played a causal role.

The current government, of course, sweats blood in order to alter the terms of discussion what ‘authentic’ political expression entails. For a long time, David Cameron has dabbled in selective populism, aligning himself prominently to a number of folksy causes. Green Conservatism, as Alex Niven pointed out in one of 2011’s most incisive polemics, constructs its identity around pastoralist totems such as organic food, slow cooking, and artisanal thrift. It imagines, or at least outwardly insists, that the UK’s economic inequalities can best be eliminated via localism and a passionate embracing of the Best of British. Never mind class war: politics begins when you choose to buy your cheese at a farmers’ market rather than at Tesco.

Shortly after the riots, a photograph was taken that let slip pop’s complicity in this subterfuge. Alex James, a man who has spent the last few years protesting too much about how organic food production is infinitely more gratifying than the life of a touring rock star, gave consent for his Oxfordshire farm to be used to stage Harvest, a boutique food and music festival. Playing the garrulous country squire, he was snapped deep in conversation with both Cameron and Jeremy Clarkson, the avatars, respectively, of compassionate Conservatism and PC-baiting, speed camera-hating Little Englanderism. Harvest, it appeared, was an ideological interzone for disparate trends within modern Toryism.

Advertised with the saccharine promise of "a celebration of food and music for friends and for families", the festival gave much away about the centrality of spontaneity and earthiness in the grammar of latter-day reactionary values. On its website, headliners The Kooks were praised on the patriotic and yet essentially meaningless grounds of being "quintessentially English" (they presumably lost on penalties in the festival five-a-side), while we were told that KT Tunstall "shows young wastrels how to play a guitar with joyful intent each and every time". The latter claim possesses only a quantum of intelligibility – do young musicians need tuition in order to intend to play joyfully? – but was most revealing in how it encouraged the event’s audience to imagine themselves. They weren’t, as one would expect, middle-class professionals and students taking a brief rural break, but free-thinking bohemians living impulsively in the moment.

The ‘wastrel’ acquired its currency as an image when Pete Doherty was shilling his dubious Albion mythology seven or eight years ago. During the mid-2000s, forward-thinking tendencies in rock were suddenly overwhelmed by a glorification of spontaneity: it didn’t matter what the music sounded like, so long as it could be knocked out at short notice to a crowd of thirty-six slumming private school kids in a Bethnal Green bedsit.

The subsequent trickle-down, attributable at least in part to Conor McNicholas’ editorial policies at the NME, initially manifested itself in a spate of uninventive provincial four-pieces, but it wasn’t long before the more visceral elements of the garage revival were done away with. Acoustic guitars, banjos, and ukuleles became the instruments of choice for a generation who embraced open-mike nights as a liberation from the conventional gigging channels of demo tapes and unglamorous support slots, and the notion of the band as the primary vehicle of expression was subordinated to a romantic vision of the contemporary minstrel.

The theory that this represented an alternative way of life should have been discredited in 2009, when Saatchi & Saatchi produced a reprehensible TV commercial for T-Mobile in which a game young musician used his free texts to organise a massive jamming session. The song which resulted, ‘Come With Me’, belonged identifiably to the post-Libertines tradition of jaunty semi-acoustic pop, but was set apart from the work of The Wombats or The Fratellis due to its featuring of over one thousand performers. Josh Ward, the song’s author, was praised by the video’s art director for being "a real person using his own social networks": this, we were told, was evidence of the democratic, inclusive potential of modern consumer technologies, which provide the wherewithal for us to act decisively on our whims.

Looking at the video, however, it’s shocking how closely the members of Ward’s networks resemble the ‘real people’ of the ‘broom army’, another putatively viral phenomenon. In this similarity, one can perceive a fundamental truth about the cultural logic of Big Society. When it did locate compliance in popular music, Thatcherism gave rise to an aspirational, future-oriented strand of New Romanticism: Cameron’s Conservatism, by contrast, finds a less direct mode of expression in sham enactments of ‘folk’ autonomy. The organic, ‘real’ provenance of movements which affirm the ideological status quo is offered as proof that challenges to that dominant order are regarded by the majority of the nation’s population as undesirable and inauthentic.

Given that austerity policies and meddling in the financial set-up of both further and higher education are combining to burden people in their early twenties with a deep sense of depression about their prospects, it would seem reasonable to expect that such assertions of a right to dictate what is ‘real’ might be held to account by musicians. 2011, however, has been frustrating in that pseudo-folk – in the form of affectedly intimate, exaggeratedly free-wheeling acts like Laura Marling and Mumford and Sons – has been almost ubiquitous. The death of Bert Jansch in October served as a reminder that folk music can be dissenting and democratically inclusive, but its most popular present-day practitioners have all the political clout of a rye bread loaf purchased at great expense on Borough Market.

When Marling, the Mumfords, or Noah and the Whale turn up at each other’s shows to lend a hand on banjo, trumpet, or hurdy-gurdy – or, for that matter, when Ed Sheeran inserts a rap into one of his already-atrocious campfire strumalongs – an implicit request is made that the audience recognise the spontaneity of the gesture. Guest appearances and off-the-cuff lyrical improvisation have long been associated with the capacity of popular music to confound the rules and, so to speak, ‘do the gig right here’; that is, they are actions which comprise a preconfigured lexicon of non-compliance. This vocabulary of ‘wastrel’ unruliness, however, acts as a mirror to Big Society’s catalogue of false independence – roof-mounted wind turbines and retro chocolate – in the public sphere. Low-level quirkiness does not pose political questions; indeed, resistance is best achieved in forms of collective organisation which rebuke nostalgic representations of communal belonging with a broader sense of social purpose.

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